Friday, April 02, 2010

Russia and the West explained...

Russia's history is written in blood.

This isn't intended as an insult to the land of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, merely a statement of fact. Over the centuries it's been a brutal place. Whereas other nations make war on their neighbours, Russia specialises in slaughtering its own people. From the annihilation of the peasants under the Tsars to the tens of millions killed by the great dictator of the last century. Why is this?

In the largest country on earth, whole areas live in abject backwardness, untouched by the civilising hand of time, let alone television. We scoff at Russian alcoholism and take them for a nation of drunks. But this ignores a harsher truth. The Russian winter is so cold that there's no other way to keep warm. Cut off and freezing, what should the Russian masses resort to - mathematical theorems?

After the victory of the West in the Cold War, the Great Bear retreated to its wintry lair to lick its wounds. But a bear shamed isn't a bear tamed. So what stirs now in the dark forest of the Russian night?

One thing we know. Animals, like people, don't change. The bear born in the wild won't come knocking on the door one day, asking to sit by the fire like a domestic cat. The only means of entry he understands is the sort of force that leaves the door swinging on its hinges.

But force in the twenty-first century lacks subtlety. It's a big thing that can be spotted and squashed. And although animals don't change, they can be trained. What's needed are some new tricks. It seems that the Great Bear has learnt some.

For example, the new Great Bear understands sunshifting technology. If the sun is melting your butter, why move the butter? Why not the sun? If the Constitution prevents you from continuing in office, why move the Constitution? Why not the country? In the past, Great Bears pawed and mauled. You could hear them from miles away. This one is an altogether more dangerous beast.

The West can react in three ways to the tidal wave of Russian money flooding its shores. First, revulsion: "Where does this come from? Is that blood? Sorry - we only take American Express." Second, disdain, the old European way: "OK, you can come in, but you must stand at the back. And don't speak." And third, slavish acceptance; the West's actual choice. An avalanche of bankers, jewellers, estate agents and other purveyors of finery, all tripping over themselves to be of service. Why roar yourself hoarse, when all you need do is throw some meat into the arena? Then, you can watch previously virtuous animals make a spectacle of themselves.

Of course, the West had its oversized-collar wearers and dancers with champagne bottles before the Russians arrived. But how much more pendulous are the collars and heavy the bottles now that they're here? What else would you expect? If you're inclined to this behaviour, the arrival of a five-hundred-foot yacht packed with eighteen-year-old "producees" will have only one effect.

So where does this leave us? And what next? We don't know. But one thing we can be sure. The winter hibernation is over. The Great Bear is awake and he has a plan. History has taught us that once his paw's in the honey pot, he'll want to eat the hive.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Azerbaijan, the Eastern Partnership and the EU

The European Union is open to any European country that fulfills the democratic, political and economic criteria for membership. These criteria, set by the European Council in 1993, and usually referred to as the Copenhagen Criteria, are the sole legal basis for the enlargement of the EU but, in practice, things are a bit more complicated than they may look, as the admission of new members requires the unanimous approval of all member states. From the political point of view, and seen from the EU perspective, in advance of each new enlargement, the EU needs to assess its capacity to absorb the new members and the ability of its institutions to continue to function properly. On the other hand, it is also important to state that the successive enlargements, that led the EU to increase from six to twenty-seven members, have strengthened democracy and made Europe more secure, and increased its potential for trade and economic growth.

By inviting ten more countries to join in 2004 and, then, Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, the EU put an end to the split in our continent, which, since the end of World War II, had separated the free world from the communist bloc. Turkey, Croatia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia have been granted, in 2005, the status of candidate countries, and have started accession negotiations with the European Commission. Iceland and Serbia have recently applied for membership too, and other potential candidates include Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro.

As the EU expanded to 25 and then 27, the member states prepared a new treaty framework to ensure the enlarged EU was able to work efficiently and democratically; during this process, however, it became clear that many in the EU had a number of concerns about its final borders and even about its identity. The case of Turkey has emerged as the best example of this debate, with many questioning its geographical location, political history and even religious identity. In spite of the clear criteria and the principle of openness already stated, there are no easy answers to these questions, as each country views its geopolitical or economic interests differently: the Baltic states and Poland, for instance, advocate EU membership for Ukraine, and the possible entry of Turkey will certainly raise the question of the South Caucasus countries; on the other hand, the political situation in Belarus and the strategic location of Moldova still pose problems, and it seems that there is a consensus in that Russian membership would create unacceptable imbalances in the European Union, both politically and geographically.

The European Union has, therefore, two parallel policies for handling its relations with neighboring countries, depending on whether they are on the current list of potential candidates or not: stabilization and association agreements, which open up the possibility for a country to become a candidate for EU membership at the end of the negotiation process; and the neighborhood policy, under which the EU develops trade and cooperation agreements with non-member countries in the southern Mediterranean and the southern Caucasus, as well as with countries in eastern Europe whose future relationship with the EU remains unclear. The recently established Eastern Partnership falls under the latter.

Through the Eastern Partnership, the EU is indeed moving to strengthen ties with six countries to its east: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The plan calls for increased funding for these countries and offers them the prospect of free-trade agreements if they undertake political and economic reforms. This is due to the fact that these are, in one hand, transit countries for oil and gas to Europe but, on the other hand, all face important challenges to democracy and the rule of law. Last but not the least, the EU is also concerned about stability in the region, especially after the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008.

Shall the good intentions be carried on successfully, the Eastern Partnership will therefore promote democracy and good governance, strengthen energy security, promote sector reform and environment protection, encourage people to people contacts, support economic and social development and offer additional funding for projects to reduce social-economic imbalances and increase stability. Regardless of a future application for EU membership or not, I am convinced that Azerbaijan has a lot to benefit from the Eastern Partnership and the opportunities it brings along, and a role to play in its success.

EU relations with Azerbaijan are governed by the EU-Azerbaijan Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, signed in 1996 and entered into force in 1999. Azerbaijan became part of the European Neighborhood Policy in 2004 and, on the basis of a Country Report published in March 2005, an Action Plan was discussed by the European Commission and the Azerbaijani Government and finally adopted in November 2006. The main EU-cooperation objectives, policy responses and priority fields can be found in the Country Strategy Paper 2007-2013 and in the National Indicative Programme, adopted in agreement with the Azerbaijani authorities and covering the period 2007-2010. These priorities include: support for democratic development and good governance; support for socio-economic reform, fight against poverty and administrative capacity building; and support for legislative and economic reforms in the transport, energy and environment sectors.

In the case of Azerbaijan, the area that has been inspiring more concerns among the EU players is, unfortunately, the one related to democratic development and good governance: governance issues, human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of press and of assembly, remain fundamental concerns and priorities with a view to contributing to Azerbaijan's further democratization. Public administration reform and improved public finance and tax management are also considered crucial to enhancing institutional capacity and improving the transparency and public accountability of state and administrative structures at all levels. Linked to this, further investment in judicial reform is required to pursue the objectives of guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary and ensuring the impartiality and effectiveness of prosecution. And all this should of course be accompanied by a promotion of citizens' rights and public participation in the political, economic and social spheres and leading to a greater participation by citizens in public life and in the control of institutional bodies and law enforcement agencies and services.

It must be underlined that all these objectives have been agreed upon by the Azerbaijani government, and not unilaterally imposed by the European Union. In one hand this gives hope for the success of its implementation, as these aims won't be possible to achieve without the commitment and the efforts of the Azerbaijani authorities; but on the other hand it also sets a standard to which the authorities need to be accountable for, and for the citizens ans civil society organizations to exercise their monitoring role.

At the inauguration of the recently established Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner stated that “the Eastern Partnership cooperation cannot be achieved without the representatives of grass-root organizations, trade unions, business and professional associations, NGOs, think-tanks, non-profit foundations, national and international networks – all the diverse actors of Civil Society”. But, maybe more importantly, she recognized that in many of the Eastern Partnership countries, and in order to be able to fulfill its role, civil society needs “more democracy, greater recognition and closer cooperation with the authorities of your countries; better legislative frameworks, more resources for their activities, easier people to people contacts and travel to the European Union”. This applies, certainly and at least, to Azerbaijan.

I would like to conclude as I started: the European Union is open to any European country that fulfills the democratic, political and economic criteria for membership. The road is surely long and winding, but getting to the destination depends, first and foremost, on the political will to undertake the journey. May I therefore wish you a safe trip! It is a worthy one!

(This article was originally written for the site

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Fatima and Josef

It's crazy, Muslims and Christians can fight each other, trade, mourn, celebrate, live and die with each other, they're just not allowed to love each other. And if a couple do dare to love all the same, the answer is death. Arabs are more consistent on that point than in anything else.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The State of God

What drives today's fanatics is a sense of divine mission that makes them the elect. It's the only drug that can enable young men who enjoy life to overcome the fear of death and despise life itself. The idea of going to Paradise is the most dangerous of all civilized inventions. That's where communism and religion meet, and the only difference is in defining its location. In this world, say the communists. No, in the next world, says religion. The Muslim fanatics try to synthesize the two. They want to set up the state of God here on earth, because they think that would solve all problems. Although it's the biggest problem of all in itself.

Monday, January 18, 2010

European Construction and Cultural Diversity

What we usually refer to as the process of European integration, initiated in the years following World War II, is undoubtedly marked by the idea of cultural diversity. If we look at what is now the European Union, these differences can easily be found, for example, through linguistic diversity: 23 official and working languages, and a score of other formally recognized regional and minority languages. The coexistence of all these languages in the geographic space of the European Union is no more than a fact, but the recognition of 23 of these languages as official and working languages is not the only evidence of the value that the EU attaches to cultural diversity; the policies and programs to protect and promote the cultural heritage of Europe (literature, theater, visual arts, architecture, crafts, film, broadcasting, etc..) are many and these objectives have been, since 1992, set out in the Treaty of the European Union. Initiatives such as the European Capital of Culture, for example, are visible and popular ways of showing the pride that the European Union has in its cultural diversity; the Culture programme, with 400 million Euros for the period 2007-2013, is another. If we attempt to list the initiatives and programs through which the European Union exercises its competences so as to protect and promote cultural diversity, we should not fail to mention the European Union action in the field of audiovisual and media, neither the important component of cultural diversity included in the European Union programs of international cooperation and development aid, of which the Memorandum of Understanding between the European Commission and the CPLP is a good example. Cultural diversity and its role in European integration have always been celebrated by the European Movement and its members and partners through the commemoration of Europe Day (May 9), but the highest point of this celebration was, most likely, the declaration of 2008 as the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue, under the motto "United in Diversity".

From the standpoint of political science, diversity is, without any doubt, one of the most interesting aspects of the European Union as a political, supranational institution. If we compare the European Union with the other global players, this is one difference that becomes immediately evident. In fact, both the United States of America or the Russian Federation, or even the emerging powers such as China and India, followed a different path that, in many respects, was marked by cultural homogenization and, for example, the adoption (or imposition) of a single language and the promotion (or invention) of a supposedly common identity and / or unity. This is indeed an issue that often arises in the European debate and one reason that is even more often invoked to explain the limitations or the inability of the European Union to speak at one voice and act in a more coherent way in the global context. I think, however, that this is not true and I would argue, moreover, that the respect and appreciation of its own diversity is an integral part of the European uniqueness and a sine qua non condition of its success. I will try to explain why.

The European Union was created, as stated above, after World War II, with the aim of ensuring peace, stability and prosperity in Europe. Those who had resisted totalitarianism, united under the European Movement, were determined to put an end to national antagonisms and create conditions for lasting peace. Inspired by the idea of Victor Hugo, who envisioned the "United States of Europe”, a handful of courageous statesmen laid the foundations for a new political organization based on common interests, the rule of law and the principle of equality of nations. Throughout its history, the European Union had, of course, to adapt its mission and its actions, but its fundamental principles were kept and even strengthened around this precarious balance between collective construction and individual identity, between European integration and national interests, between unity and diversity. The fall of the Berlin Wall, which twentieth anniversary has been recently celebrated, the reunification of Germany and the collapse of the Soviet empire reinforced that idea, and the enlargements of 2004 and 2007 confirmed the process of a construction based on the rejection of totalitarianism and authoritarianism, and on the respect and appreciation for cultural diversity. The further enlargements to Turkey and the Western Balkan countries – that I wish for a near future - will, hopefully, further and definitely strengthen this identity matrix.

The European Union was created to achieve the political goal of peace, but its economic fundamentals - the economic and social solidarity - were the ones granting it dynamism and success. European countries have long understood that to ensure their economic growth and be able to compete globally with other major economies, they have to work together. In this sense, the creation of the Single Market was decisive for the success of European companies; however, the European Union's success is mainly due to the fact that wide free competition has been counterbalanced by a policy of solidarity which has an European dimension too. Modern societies are increasingly complex and, despite the level of quality of life has been steadily improving, inequalities have been growing too; what makes the EU unique in the global context is precisely the fact that its member states act together to reduce them.

Nearly 60 years of European integration have clearly demonstrated that the EU is more than the sum of its parts; but the care and attention given to each of the parties has proved crucial to the success of the whole. To act together and speak at one voice is an asset; but to listen to each and every one of the voices strengthens the action of the whole. Unity is certainly a strength; but the European Union, by making diversity one of its core values, proves that integration does not necessarily have to be done at the expense of the different lifestyles, traditions and cultures of its peoples.

In conclusion, the thesis that I try to defend in this text is that the slogan "Unity in Diversity" is not just a nice idea that one can easily adhere to from the theoretical point of view; it is also a line of action with positive practical results and that, in my view, explains the success of the European integration process and should continue to be the basis for its future successes. Market forces and / or the unilateral action of one or another may indeed give good results in the short term; in the long-term, however, a shared vision of humankind and a social model supported by the vast majority of the citizens will certainly make the difference between a good intention and a successful project. I therefore believe that the higher we go in the appreciation of the cultural diversity in Europe, the more we will contribute to its unity and successful construction. It is also my belief that this principle applies to all levels, including the national, local and at all others in which human endeavors and the collective construction of reality should take into account that differences can never justify inequalities.

(this article was originally written in Portuguese for the upcoming issue of Juvenilia, the Portuguese National Youth Council magazine)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Salma and St John

Salma loved John the Baptist with all her heart. She often went to look at the oil painting of the saint in the Catholic church, lit a candle, prayed devoutly and told him all her troubles. And she swore that everything she asked John the Baptist for was granted. But one wish of hers remained unfulfilled... Salma kept repeating her request, but in vain. She gave even more candles, but nothing happened. Selma reminded the saint first gently, then more and more forcefully, that she had already given nearly seventy candles for this one request and he hadn't heard her. The priest of the church sometimes had to wait a long time for her to finish her conversations with St John, and found it a nuisance... One day he had an idea: he got behind the picture and waited. Soon Salma came along and began explaining volubly that she was disappointed, because St John had failed her even though she had already given him seventy-eight candles. "This is my last", she said. "What exactly do you want?" Salma was alarmed, but she pulled herself together, explained her wish at length, and promised that if St John granted it she would give the church a hundred lira. "Why the church?" "Very well", said Salma, "then the hundred lira will be just for you." "But I don't want money", replied the priest behind the painting of St John. "What do you want? Candles? I could light you a hundred", offered Salma. "Oh, I hate candles", groaned the priest. "Would you like me to slaughter a sheep and distribute it to the poor?" "Those poor sheep, I can't stand the sight of blood." "Well, what do you want, then?" asked Salma, her nerves all on edge. "I want you to scrub the church three times a week for three months." "Oh yes? Scrub the church?" Salma snapped angrily. "I can do without that, thank you very much, but I'll tell you one thing: I'm not a bit surprised they chopped your head off, you old misery-guts!"

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


One day, Jesus and Muhammad were playing backgammon in heaven. When Jesus was losing and had reached the point where his last throw couldn't win the game even if it was two sixes, Muhammad scoffed at him. "Give up, lad!" he said. "Nothing can help you out of this fix!" But his broad grin froze when Jesus, smiling, threw the dice and they landed on the board - two sevens! Muhammad was furious. "You just listen to me," he spat. "That's no miracle, that's cheating!"